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Wednesday, January 6, 1999 Published at 18:12 GMT


A royal marriage-in-waiting

The romance between Sophie Rhys-Jones and Prince Edward began in the summer of 1993 when she handled the publicity for his Real Tennis Challenge.

By January 1996 she had been accepted into Prince Edward's family. She even featured in a portrait exhibition on The Mall entitled "Leaders of Great Britain into the 21st Century".

So it was more question of when, rather than if, the pair would become engaged.

Now that they have finally announced they are to tie the knot, has their determination to wait set their marriage on track for success?

Older and wiser?

Sophie Rhys-Jones's "commoner" background makes the marriage more of a 90s match. The aristocratic pedigree of Diana Spencer or upper-class origins of Sarah Ferguson proved that no amount of noble blood can guarantee a royal marriage will work.

Judith Kark, principal of London's Lucie Clayton finishing school, believes Sophie Rhys-Jones has distinct advantages over other royal brides of her generation.

"Firstly, she is a 30-something bride which is not the stuff of fairy tales. We are not going to see her grow and develop as we did the 19-year-old Diana. Secondly, she has already had five years practice living among the royals.

"She has had the opportunity to really study the commitment she is going to have to make. That's the commitment she will have to make to the royal family as well as to the marriage," she said.

Their courtship has also been long enough to convince Ingrid Seward, the editor of Majesty magazine, and Edward's biographer, that this is indeed a love match.

"They have been together for such a long time. They will have had discovered anything they didn't like about each other and couldn't live with," she said.

Statistically speaking

Their announcement has been met with good wishes from Relate, the couple guidance charity. Counsellor Denise Knowles did not want to comment on the royal relationship itself, but offered an insight into the pros and cons of a long courtship.

"Every relationship is different. Statistics have shown, however, that if you live together before you get married there's a greater likelihood that you will get divorced," she said.

"But as with anything it depends very much on the couple. For some it means they can iron out difficulties and get to know what they're in for."

Although Miss Rhys-Jones has had access to the prince's rooms at Buckingham Palace for several years, she insists that they never lived together.

Learning the royal ropes

Time and space will have given Miss Rhys-Jones a chance to get accustomed to ceremonial etiquette, state protocol and the pressures of the media.

Around Christmas 1993, Prince Edward issued a personal plea to newspaper editors to allow his relationship with Miss Rhys-Jones to quietly blossom.

"I am taking this unusual step... in the hope of stopping your reporters and photographers from destroying that part of my life that I am entitled to regard as private and, more importantly, Sophie's life," he said.

Ingrid Seward says no amount of pleas or preparation could ever be enough for entry into the royal household.

"It will be very difficult. However well prepared you are it's always a bit of shock to find the total focus of the world's media attention focussed onto just one person."

The person who will have played the most crucial role in her preparation is her fiancé himself.

The fact that he is just seventh in line to the throne should also help to take some of the pressure off and allow them a similar lifestyle to that enjoyed by his cousins.

Life in the goldfish bowl

Judith Kark, of the Lucie Clayton school, says, as the youngest, Prince Edward has been allowed the space to get through life with less press attention and establish a life beyond Buckingham Palace. She says this will help make this "slightly less of a goldfish marriage.

"He has the confidence to be able to say to Sophie "it doesn't matter" which is certainly not something that Charles would have said to Diana or Andrew would have said to Sarah," she said.

The prince's biographer agrees that he is very much his own person who doesn't like being told what to do or how to do it.

"He does things his own way. We got a glimpse of that when he said every time the media speculation grew that he was going to marry Sophie he backed down. He wanted to do it in his own time and his own space."

With their feet firmly on the ground and a determination to continue their careers this is one royal couple who are not seeking a fairytale ending. They just want to be "just married".

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